First Aid Kit
Stockholm’s Klara and Johanna Söderberg have lived a charmed life. In 2007, Swedish state radio turned one of their demos into a summer hit. In 2008, their video of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” went viral, and their 2010 debut won rave reviews—all while they were still teenagers. On Ruins, the sisters channel the sweep of the prairie (the American one), and it’s telling that their band members are named Scott, Steve and Melvin. Their backup is sympathetic but the spotlight is all the sisters’. The rub of their voices creates an intense pungency that might get old—I like Ruins best when it dials back, as on “Postcard,” an honest country song; “To Live a Life,” an arrestingly lovely lullaby afloat on glowing pedal steel; and the surprisingly wry “Hem of Her Dress.”
Belle & Sebastian
How to Solve Our Human Problems (Part 3) (Matador)
This is the third EP in the series, and it bears yet another corny cover of what looks like an ad for a global pen pal service: four headshots depicting “normal” people who are uniformly young, attractive and good-humored. Stuart Murdoch, who magnificently updated the British folk-rock tradition 20 years ago, has decided he’d rather be an American soft-souler, and it ain’t happening. Opening track “Poor Boy” is stillborn Hallmark-card disco, and breakup song “Too Many Tears” is neutered into something borderline cheery, the erstwhile mopey lyrics getting undercut by Murdoch’s wry “I didn’t mean to make me cry.” Fellow Glaswegian Carla Easton contributes and sings “Best Friend,” but it’s as cutesy as the rest of the record. The only outlier, “There is an Everlasting Song,” seems to be Murdoch’s bid for church bonfire immortality. A fine ambition, but geez, what happened to this band?
Songs of Praise (Dead Oceans)
At the other end of the affective spectrum, we have Shame’s Songs of Praise, which is also frontrunner for sarcastic album title of the year. There are awful people in the world, and frontman Charlie Steen has apparently met most of them—for the bulk of the album he plays the wounded cur in the corner, lashing out at his tormentors: “If you think I love you / You’ve got the wrong idea”; “I like you better when you’re not around”; “I’d like to pick you up / But I’d rather watch you crawl.” You think maybe it’s him? Or is he just doing his best Mark E. Smith, as this quintet of fresh young Londoners whips up ersatz Fall grooves? Steen and the group finally let down their guard on the gorgeous closer “Angie,” with actual pathos far more affecting than all the foregoing petulance.
All Nerve (4AD)
They got the band back together! All Nerve doesn’t just feature the classic Last Splash lineup—Pod engineer Steve Albini is also on board, bringing his trademark snare thuds and overall abrasiveness. His style works best when layering an unsettling aggression on poppier songs like the title track and the Western-tinged album opener “Nervous Mary”—it just makes bassist Josephine Wiggs’ grim “MetaGoth” sound extra off-putting. But that song gives way to a pair of stunners: Kim Deal guides “Spacewoman” through various sections (yes, soft-loud-soft-loud) without losing momentum or tension, and “Walking With a Killer” has drums that go tumbling and a guitar that turns deliciously twangy between frantic buzzy strumming. Throw in a shambling Amon Düül II cover, and All Nerve is a more-than-worthwhile return for the sisters Deal.